Robert Earl Keen


Still Defying Labels


Those of us who love music usually love to share it, so I was happy to take my young friends Sasha Gavrilova and Andrei Bekrenev—both New York-based correspondents for the Russian news agency ITAR-TASS, to see the one and only Robert Earl Keen a few weeks ago at Irving Plaza.

Of course, they didn’t know who REK is, though they’re hardly alone in this regard. While Keen deservedly retains a legion of college age and over fans who pack his performances and shout out every lyric, he’s never been a hit recording artist, nor a hip one, for that matter, in the manner of fellow Texan singer-songwriters like Guy Clark or Joe Ely or even his Texas A&M college neighbor Lyle Lovett, with whom he wrote “The Front Porch Song” (they both recorded it separately) and with whom he recently toured.

That said, anyone who does know who Keen is knows he’s one of a kind—none better. Still, I was hard pressed to explain to Sasha and Andrei what kind of music he played, and had to settle on “country,” more or less—though not the modern Taylor Swift kind they were most likely to know about.

But the Houston-born Keen knows we have a problem in this regard, and addressed it during the show after asking how many had brought friends who had never seen him before.

“I know it’s hard to explain who I am,” he conceded. “I’m not folk—but who does folk music anymore? I guess just the Coen Brothers!”

“And I’m not R&B,” he continued. “I can’t even tap my feet to my own guitar!”

And then came the clincher.

“And I’m sure not country music! I don’t wear leather pants or have highlights in my hair.”

But he didn’t stop there.

Robert Earl Keen-1Suddenly thrusting himself into the future, REK looked back, nostalgically, at what passes for country music today.

“Rascal Flats,” he said, reverently, but with tongue visibly in cheek. “Taylor Swift. I sure miss the Band Perry. Lady Antebellum.”

Sasha and Andrei knew Taylor Swift, but not the others. Actually, it’s debatable whether anyone in Irving Plaza cared enough about the others to have been much help for Sasha and Andrei.

Otherwise, Keen’s show was somehow better than ever, and I say this as someone who’s seen him countless times over more years. He and his band are up there with the Stones and the Dead, not to mention all the great Texas country artists that Robert Earl both evokes and transcends.

And to top it all off, he’s selling his new Robert Earl Keen’s Yardbird Bloody Mary Mix along with his CDs, DVDs, t-shirts, shot glasses, etc., and in an even more novel merchandising touch, he brought a crate full of hardcover volumes from his Western book collection for purchase, each with signed bookplates.

Jim Bessman


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